Former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers said Friday that he once confronted GOP Rep. Tony Cornish about sexually harassing women at the Capitol, and he is now calling for Cornish to resign from the House.
In a written statement, Zellers said that "in response to secondhand rumors at the State Capitol, I had a private meeting with Rep. Tony Cornish. At that time, I informed Rep. Cornish in the strongest possible terms that sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable and will not be tolerated at the Minnesota Legislature."
Zellers, who served as House speaker in 2011 and 2012, said he also told Cornish that if he received any complaint that "we would immediately begin disciplinary proceedings. No further incidents regarding Rep. Tony Cornish were reported or communicated to me after this meeting and during the remainder of my term as Speaker of the House."
Two women, a current DFL state representative and a Capitol lobbyist, told the Star Tribune on Thursday that Cornish sexually harassed them. Their accounts came on the heels of harassment accusations against DFL Sen. Dan Schoen. Both have denied wrongdoing. Schoen is under pressure from DFL colleagues to resign, while Cornish has been at least temporarily displaced as chairman of the House Public Safety Committee.
"I believe he should resign from office and issue an apology to his victims and constituents he was sent to St. Paul to represent," Zellers said of Cornish.
Cornish, R-Vernon Center, did not respond Friday to a request for a response on Zellers' account. Neither Schoen nor his lawyer responded Friday to requests for comment.
Cornish admitted Thursday to texting Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, with comments about her appearance, but said he did not realize at the time that she took offense.
Current House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said on Thursday that he was not aware of any specific allegations against Cornish and did not confront him. Despite a meeting about harassment and House decorum with DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman in May, Daudt said in a statement that he "was not made aware of specific complaints and names of those responsible despite repeated requests for information."
Hortman disputes this, saying she specifically mentioned Cornish: "When I met with Daudt in May and brought up Cornish, he said something like, 'We don't let women within six feet of Tony Cornish.' So he clearly knew there was a problem," said Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
Asked about the exchange, Susan Closmore, a spokeswoman for Daudt, referred to his statement Thursday denying any knowledge of specific complaints. House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, who was also involved in the back-and-forth between Daudt and Hortman over harassment issues, did not return a call seeking comment Friday.
On Friday, another Capitol lobbyist told of going to Republican staff about two years ago to report that Cornish was sexually harassing women lobbyists. The person, who did not want to be named for fear of professional repercussions at the Capitol, described the conversation as "casual," one that did not elicit much reaction. It was not known whether the conversation prompted any changes.
Daudt late Thursday suspended Cornish's chairmanship and said he would ask the House's nonpartisan human resources office to look into the allegations. In addition to Maye Quade, a veteran lobbyist who asked not to be identified told the Star Tribune on Thursday that Cornish repeatedly hit on her over a period of years and once cornered her in his office, pushing her against a wall and trying to kiss her. Cornish denied that account.
Daudt said in the statement that he and Hortman agreed on a mandatory harassment and discrimination training at the beginning of the next session.
"If Hortman received a specific complaint, I urge her to follow our policy and immediately report it to HR or our employment attorney," Daudt said. "Had I received a specific complaint, I would have reported it as is required. I will continue to work with Hortman to ensure the Minnesota House is a safe and respectful work environment for members and employees."
In addition to the text exchange with Cornish, Maye Quade, a first-term legislator, relayed another incident to the Star Tribune.
During a floor speech Maye Quade made about education earlier this year, a lawmaker on the House floor leaned over to another and said, "You know she's a lesbian, right?"
The other legislator replied: "I know, what a waste: Look at that body."
Maye Quade said she heard part of the exchange, which was then relayed to her in full by several colleagues. Maye Quade is married to a woman.
Maye Quade, along with Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, and Lindsey Port, a business owner from Burnsville who ran for the House in 2016 and is running again next year, on Friday urged the creation of a task force of Republicans and DFLers to create recommendations to "address the culture of the Legislature and campaigns and create lasting change in our workplace."
"Victims of sexual harassment and assault committed by elected officials and candidates for office currently have no safeguards or protections and little to no recourse in our current system of reporting," the three DFL women said in the release. Maye Quade and Port both allege mistreatment by Schoen.
They propose a better reporting process free of intimidation, more effective harassment training, and a nonpartisan process — independent of either's party caucus — for taking reports of sexual harassment and investigating allegations.
Republican women in the Senate also took to social media to register concerns. Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, posted a brief statement on her Facebook page: "Sexual harassment is never OK. Sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the Minnesota Senate."
In an interview, Benson said her understanding is that Schoen is "contemplating resignation."
"If he decides not to resign, then an ethics complaint would be appropriate," Benson said. She declined to comment on the allegations against Cornish.
A number of prominent DFLers, including Gov. Mark Dayton, have called for Schoen to resign.
They were joined by numerous prominent Republicans. So far, only Zellers among prominent state Republicans has said Cornish should resign from the House. Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who has called on Schoen to step down, did not respond to a request for comment about Cornish.
The lawyer for the lobbyist who accused Cornish of long-running harassment said they are waiting to see how the House investigation unfolds.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we see a different process now than perhaps what's been done in the past," said Scott Flaherty, a complex litigation lawyer at Briggs and Morgan. "Victims have felt free to come forward in ways they didn't in the past.
"There would be real value in the leadership saying, 'We're going to take ownership of this and we're going to clean house,' " Flaherty said.